Air Force Capt. David Englin — now a member of the Virginia House of Delegates — was stationed at the Pentagon when the terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. He says he was watching television coverage of the fire at the World Trade Center when he noticed a flash of light out the window. He would later learn that it was American Airlines Flight 77 slamming into Corridor 4 on the west side of the building. Englin and others in the Air Force press office immediately shifted into action, helping in the rescue and recovery operation.
“We were expecting another plane. Then we saw an F16 flying overhead — one of our guys — and everybody breathed a sign of relief,” Englin said. “Senior officers were already speculating that the attack would be the administration’s excuse to go into Iraq.”
Cars in the parking lot became makeshift ambulances, with the Pentagon employees volunteering to transport the injured to area hospitals. Everywhere he looked, he could see smoke, wreckage and blood. Englin remembers escorting one woman with smoke-inhalation to a Washington hospital through the capital’s gridlocked streets, trying to reassure her that things were going to be all right.
“The next day, people were back at their desks. It was one of those things were we wanted to show the terrorists that they couldn’t stop us from living our lives,” Englin said. “The building was still on fire for days after the attack. My eyes were burning red, and who knows what we were breathing. But we felt like we had to be there.”
In the years after the attack, many features of the Pentagon culture have changed. The hallway doors are now closed, and signs announcing the office occupants have been replaced by a number-coded system to increase security. The mail is slowed by two weeks for irradiation. A new welcome center was built to prevent Metro riders from taking an escalator into the Pentagon concourse. Englin separated from the Air Force and ran for office. On his first return to the Pentagon after leaving military life, he was moved by the cards, letters and children’s artwork still displayed near the point of impact. He signed the guestbook near the memorial chapel and thought about the past five years.
“We were a country trying to defend ourselves against people who were trying to kill us,” Englin said. “Now we’re embroiled in Iraq, a country that did not attack us. We’ve taken all this goodwill that we used to have and squandered it.”